The last three classes of Princetonians never saw the men’s basketball team reach the NCAA Tournament. The unfortunate men and women to graduate in 2008, ’09 and ’10 suffered through the reign of Penn and Cornell, witnessing a dry spell that was the program’s longest in more than three decades.
This year, the Tigers ensured that five thousand current students would not meet the same fate.
This team will likely go down in the history books as the one that put Princeton back atop the Ivy League. But to indulge in a trite cliché: it was not the destination that made watching this team special, but the journey. The Tigers always sent the home crowd happy at Jadwin Gymnasium, usually giving the fans their money’s worth for 40 minutes – and occasionally more. Entering the NCAA Tournament, Princeton had won 10 consecutive games that were decided by less than five points or overtime. One can attribute that to experience, toughness or pure luck, but one thing is for sure: it was endearing.
Though they came in with plenty of wisdom, the Tigers seemed to learn from their previous games. The team that threw the ball away 17 times in one half at Duke committed only 19 turnovers in its final 100 minutes of the season. The team that blew countless second-half leads early in the season overcame large deficits after halftime against Penn and Harvard with its season on the line, culminating in Doug Davis’s now-famous buzzer-beater.
Five days later, the Tigers took the court in Tampa, Fla., where hundreds of students and alumni were thrilled to see the Orange and Black on the national stage again. Kentucky, stronger than your typical No. 4-seed, appeared a formidable foe – only 4.9 percent of brackets submitted to ESPN’s Tournament Challenge predicted an upset – and even among most Princeton students, the hope was merely that the Tigers would not embarrass themselves.
Early on, even that appeared to be a stretch, as Kentucky took an 11-2 lead off the opening tip and seemed poised for a blowout. Even the 8-2 run that put the Tigers back into the game had a fluky, unsustainable feeling – Princeton scored off a couple of broken plays and the Wildcats missed some high-percentage shots.
But after those first eight minutes, the Tigers found their groove, and neither team would lead by more than five points the rest of the way. This wasn’t a case of a hot-shooting David making enough outside shots to hang with a Goliath, an underdog putting all of its chips into a risky pot and rolling doubles; in fact, the Tigers made just three of 14 three-pointers, one of their lowest marks of the season. This was two opponents playing the same game, two good teams playing basketball.
Few experiences have been more surreal than sitting in a 20,000-seat stadium, watching the same team that I’ve seen in a dozen different games play Kentucky to a draw on the largest possible stage. Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones will play in the NBA next year; Ian Hummer and Kareem Maddox are faces I see at Frist. And yet, if you switched the jerseys on this particular afternoon, one would hardly notice.
The last time Princeton was in the Big Dance, the 14th-seed took a three-point lead into halftime before a 14-2 Texas run restored order. But although many expected to see the same on Thursday, the Wildcats could do no such thing. Kentucky did score eight consecutive points midway through the half, but still the Tigers hung around.
And then Maddox hits a high-arcing jumper, and then Dan Mavraides hits a fadeaway – of course it would be Maddox and Mavraides, the two seniors, the proverbial heart and soul of the team – and, amazingly, the game is tied with 36 seconds to play.
You know what happens next: Brandon Knight hits a wild layup over Maddox, and the dream is shattered. But really, that’s not important. To paraphrase Kyle Whelliston of The Mid-Majority, the season always ends with a loss. Sure, the dream is there that Princeton basketball, like any other small-conference team, could pull off six miracles in three weeks and win the national championship, but it hasn’t happened in the first 73 years of the tournament and won’t in the next 73.
While everyone with an interest in the program would have preferred that ending to come two days, maybe a week later, for the Tigers to get another shining moment in the national spotlight, we all knew it would end sometime. For that ending to come now, in a hard-fought game on the national stage against one of the top teams in the country – not to a heated rival at The Palestra or in front of hundreds of Crimson fans in a tiny gym – is as much as a fan could ask for.
Eight months from now, there will be more basketball. But as is always the case with college sports – with sports at all levels, really – it won’t be quite the same. Mavraides and Maddox will leave after being involved in all stages of the most dramatic four-year turnaround in program history. Opponents will change, teammates will change, venues will change, the stakes will change.
There will still be winning, perhaps a lot of it. There will still be drama – though not as much as this year, because how could there be? – and maybe even another buzzer-beater or two. There will be familiar fans clad in orange and black, familiar plays and familiar faces, none more so than head coach Sydney Johnson ‘97 on the sideline. There may even be more #tigerblood.
But there will never be another 2010-11 Princeton Tigers. We will never again see the team that went 12-0 at Jadwin, even though six games were decided in the final minute; the team that sat on the bench and watched as delirious Harvard fans stormed Lavietes Pavilion; the team that overcame an eight-point deficit in the second half against Penn to claim the Ivy League title; the team that experienced the greatest joy a team can possibly have, winning a playoff game with a do-or-die buzzer-beater; the team that went down to Tampa and matched one of the nation’s best for 39 minutes and 58 seconds.
After the defeat, the players seemed largely shell-shocked, unable to process what had really happened. Johnson was the only one who seemed to fully appreciate the magnitude of what his players had accomplished, as well as the sad reality that their journey had ended.
You’ve probably seen the video by now. It should not have been a surprise that Johnson would tear up when the Tigers eventually lost, as he was very emotional after both of the Tigers’ wins last week. But it was still startling to watch it happen, to see the coach who would never let his players overlook the next game realize that there was no next game to focus on.
Johnson was composed through most of the press conference and was rolling through a response to his third question when he suddenly struggled to finish.
“Princeton and Kentucky are two of the best programs we’ve seen in college basketball, so I was very excited, and I wanted to demand from my players…[long pause as he fights back tears]…that we live up to that…[even longer pause, tears now glisten off his cheek]…and I think we did…I think we did that.”
On television after Princeton’s buzzer-beating victory over Harvard last weekend, Johnson memorably said, “I love Princeton basketball. I love, love, love Princeton basketball.”
On Thursday afternoon, he showed that without saying a word.
So whether you witnessed the Tigers’ run from the front row of the student section or from thousands of miles away, take a moment to appreciate this season and the team that brought Princeton back to the top of the Ivy League in the most entertaining way possible. Tiger blood.